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Monday, January 08, 2007

Youngstown, OH

Youngstown is a small post-industrial city located in northeastern Ohio, between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, PA. Its population is approximately 82,000. It was founded in 1797 by John Young. According to Wikipedia, “Youngstown offers an array of cultural and recreational resources.”

Last week I was listening to the local Christian talk show station and a woman who hailed from Cleveland, OH was giving a dramatic testimony about how God had transformed her life. When she was younger, she had gone to California to escape Cleveland. There she despaired at initially meeting only men from Youngstown, OH, which she claimed was the only place in the world worse than Cleveland.

I got my first hands-on impression of Youngstown when I was there for my brother's wedding in late 80's (Youngstown was the hometown of his bride). The weekend was your basic rehearsal / dinner / wedding / reception package; aside from being a family wedding, there was nothing noteworthy except that my money clip was stolen from my motel room, most likely by the cleaning staff. They only got about $30 but it's the thought that counts.

Most recently, we stopped at the McDonalds off the turnpike just south of Youngstown for lunch during our recent trip back to Northern VA from Detroit, MI. Based on the clientele and the overall atmosphere, I think we may have inadvertently stepped into the first ring of hell. Or maybe they were filming a horror movie. Or maybe the WWF tryouts had just let out. It was the most unhealthy, miserable-looking bunch of people I've ever seen in one place, besides at Walmart on a weekend evening.

In addition to the customers looking like they’d been sucked through a knothole, the staff seemed to be having numerous issues, and a long line was developing. One very disgruntled customer passed by us grumbling about never coming back there again. I think he was an oracle.

Digressing a bit, did I ever tell you about my one and only visit to Mickey Shorr? Mickey Shorr is a car stereo distributor, and the branch I visited was on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak, MI, a few miles north of Detroit. In 2000 I was looking for a CD/cassette player for my Crown Victoria, having wearied of the limited diversion offered by its AM/FM receiver. When I visited Mickey Shorr, I had trouble getting service, and the employees were completely unresponsive, walking around in a daze, not appearing the least bit interested in separating me from my cash. So the remarkable Mrs. Bruck and I left the place shaking our heads and wondering why nobody there coveted our custom. Well it turns out that the time we visited was immediately after Eminem had gotten into a road rage fight on Woodward with a rival rapper and chased him into Mickey Shorr with a handgun. So that's my tenuous claim to fame. Here are some details: (the most rational article I could find on the subject). I also note with amusement that Eminem's real middle name is Bruce, which is a derivative of Bruck.

Anyway, I got the same kind of feeling at the McDonald's south of Youngstown. At one point a line opened up and the cashier said, "I can take the next customer." Some of us moved over. Then a guy who looked like he'd been doused in acid and dried off with a hammer, moved over and jammed himself in ahead of us in the new line (he had been ahead of us in the other line). At that point I said, "You know, I'm getting a bad feeling about this place. Let's get out of here before something bad happens," which we did. We moved on and had lovely sandwiches at Roy Rogers just inside the Pennsylvania line.

But my encounter with Youngstown prior to that was the really strange one. On the way home (to Detroit) from a house-hunting trip in Northern VA in early 2006, we stopped in Youngstown for dinner. At the end of that long and arduous weekend, we wanted something a step up from the fruit of deep fryers. So at about dinnertime we got off the Ohio turnpike in Youngstown and started exploring. We noted one rather humble non-chain restaurant which we passed on our way north toward what we thought would be downtown. We continued on for a few miles, and seeing absolutely no restaurants, returned to the one we had passed earlier.

We were what appeared to be the only real customers in the place. There was one fellow at the bar, who appeared to be related to, and working for, the guy behind the bar, who appeared also to be the cook. Then there was an elderly couple chain-smoking at the other side of the dining room, not dining but appearing to be working on some accounting paperwork on a table, and not having too good a time doing it. The elderly woman unnerved us - the entire time we were there, she stared at us, and me in particular. She literally never took her eyes off of us.

The guy at the bar served as our waiter, and although he wasn't exactly multitasking, didn't compel a large tip. Complimentary dinner rolls were provided. They were moldy. When we finally got the waiter's attention and sent them back, he promised fresh ones immediately. It probably wasn’t the first promise he had ever broken. The kids and wife of Bruck ordered mainly frozen/fried entrees, but the ever intrepid Bruck ordered from the "Mediterranean" section. I requested the Mediterranean pork steak, which came with several sides.

A couple of salads came, and were fine, nothing special, and the kids' and wife's chicken fingers, etc., were unremarkable. But here's the strange part - in that smoky, lonely, derelict-ridden outpost, I had an absolutely fantastic meal! The pork steak was large and tender, and there were ample fresh steamed vegetables, a baked tomato, rice pilaf, and a large baked hot pepper on the side.

Meanwhile the relentless staring continued. Young David got up to use the restroom and the four cold beady eyes never left him. I had the same experience when I took a hygiene break. I attempted to break the spell by saying hello and even offering a slight wave as I passed by, and my overtures were met with stony silence.

We paid and left, rheumy eyes upon us, strictly cash; there are certain people you don't want to give your credit card numbers to.

You've probably surmised correctly that we won't be visiting the fair city of Youngstown any time soon, at least until they get a good exorcist to clean things up there. In the meantime, some good urban voodoo would be to join me in applying white-out over the city of Youngstown on all of your Ohio maps. If we don't succeed in causing it to disappear, at least we will be less tempted to get off the Ohio turnpike when we're passing by.

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